3 Critical Startup Roles (That Every Startup Forgets About)

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Sep 12, 2017

How do you know which roles are going to help your startup grow? And more importantly, even if you did know the roles, how can you tell who’d be a great fit for each one?

When productivity starts to slip, it’s easy to default back to hiring more developers or salespeople. But that approach isn’t scalable once things really take off. A recent Fast Company article argued that the No. 1 reason why startups fail is because the team isn’t right. Instead of getting more of the same on your team, put together a group that builds on each other’s strengths and covers each other’s weaknesses.

With that in mind, here are three roles critical to success, and characteristics of successful people in each role, based on our data.


As the visionary behind the company, you’ve probably been doing a cross between marketing and sales. More often than not, sales takes priority when it comes to hiring additional full-timers, but marketing is a vital piece of the puzzle. Sales needs to focus on closing leads, and marketing should be focused on generating them. Ania Markowska from ADLIB says that marketing is so important, there should be a dedicated marketing person on the team from Day 1. But even if that day has passed, it’s never too late to bring someone on board and leap ahead.

What a successful candidate looks like:

  • Your marketer should have a certain appetite for risk. They need to continuously test things, and be comfortable if those tests fail. That’s how they learn what to repeat and what doesn’t resonate with your audience.
  • Look for someone with a strong numbers game. Using data is critical to prove that something’s working well or to indicate what should be tested next.
  • A balance of planning and meeting tight deadlines is key. A great marketer has their content strategy outlined a few months in advance, but they can still churn out great content in real-time if something big happens.
  • A marketing person who thinks beyond existing strategies can drive innovation and jump the company forward.

Customer Success

To quote Jason Lemkin in a Forbes article, “customer success is where 90 percent of the revenue is.” That’s a good chunk of revenue. Plus, customer advocacy is one of the best sales tools — who better to vouch for your product or service than someone who loves it? To get to a point of customer advocacy, you need someone dedicated to making it happen.

What a successful candidate looks like:

  • At first glance, finding someone who’s supportive and accommodating sounds perfect. But when it comes to things like price negotiation at renewal time, you might be at a disadvantage. If that’s a large part of their role, you may want to consider someone who’s more assertive.
  • Customer success people are often sociable, with a knack for building relationships. But highly sociable people often need to work on their numbers game. If you expect them to record data and use it, you may need to help develop those skills.
  • Would you rather have this employee respond to your customers right away, or would you prefer they take a little longer to plan their response? Both would be nice — but that’s impossible. You’ll have to decide what’s more important here.
  • Part of the customer success role will likely include creating unique solutions for each customer. But another part of the role involves implementing processes and procedures for onboarding new customers and renewals, as well as documenting interactions. These are behaviors that come from opposing personality traits, so give some thought to what needs to come naturally versus what you can coach on.

Human Resources

This is where a lot of startups really drop the ball. It can sometimes seem like a startup’s low staff number negates the need for someone in an HR position. But Christopher Janz at Point Nine Capital writes that if your company plans on hiring 10 or more people within a 12-month window, it’s time to bring an HR full-timer on board. Jasmine Ramratan wrote a powerful piece in Hackernoon on the importance of HR for startups, and emphasizes the idea that HR can be a driving force behind growing a company effectively. Clearly, many startups need HR much sooner than they think.

What a successful candidate looks like:

  • They’ll have to be comfortable wearing hundreds of different hats each day … maybe more than you, if that’s even possible.
  • HR leaders also need to be able to make difficult decisions without getting caught up in their feelings. Being empathetic is important, but it can’t rule how they operate.
  • You’ll likely only have one HR person for quite a while, so look for candidates who can change priorities quickly without getting frustrated.
  • Complying with labor laws is mission-critical, and you probably want someone who’s detail-oriented and thorough to cover your backside. But since your first HR hire will need to create structure where there is none, the role requires a certain degree of self-direction. These two traits generally don’t come in the same package, so you may have to prioritize.

A big piece of the hiring puzzle is knowing what you’re looking for. It might be tempting to just look for additional developers or salespeople, but there are other roles that are vital to the health of your startup. Take a critical look at where your company needs additional resources. You might be surprised to find that the underlying solution involves one of these often overlooked roles. Good luck on your next hire!

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